Just as Nevada County’s history is tied to those who tirelessly mined its hills for gold, Robert Shoemaker has labored for a decade to ensure that the past is not forgotten.
As director of Grass Valley’s North Star Mining Museum, Shoemaker spearheaded the refurbishing of its Pelton Wheel — getting it working again for visitors to see in action — along with other cherished relics at the museum.
“You don’t really understand what a machine is made to do until you see it operating,” Shoemaker said. “People love to see things that move and work.”
Since he was appointed as the director in 2002, the museum’s attendance has jumped from 3,000 visitors per year to 6,000, partially attributed to increased awareness, administrators said.
After 10 years, Shoemaker, 88, is retiring from the directorship, handing off the role to Rudy Cisar, one of the museum’s dedicated volunteers. To honor Shoemaker’s contributions, the Nevada County Historical Society has named him its 2013 Citizen of the Year and bestowed on him the title of director emeritus of the museum.
“I can’t stay away from here,” Shoemaker told The Union outside the mining museum, located along Wolf Creek at 10933 Allison Ranch Road, where Highway 20 dissects Highway 49.
As a metallurgical engineer, Shoemaker knows both sides of mining, old and new. After nearly 50 years in the industry, starting with corporate giants Union Carbide and Bechtel Engineering and later as a consultant for 120 gold mines, he saw it all at mines in 22 different countries.
“This man was world famous in his time,” said Patrick Parker, a museum volunteer.
Shoemaker has also served as president of the Mining and Metallurgical Society of America and the Society of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers, written professional publications, testified as an expert witness and participated in the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library Oral History Project on California mining, Parker said.
“Everything we use comes from the earth — you must either grow it or mine it,” Shoemaker said.
“Minerals are the basis for products from cars to computers. Sure, there are downsides to mining, but the negative impacts are remediable. And the benefits are things we need and use constantly in our modern world.”
Shoemaker has been around long enough to remember when stamp mills like those in the museum were still used for crushing in mining sites overseas, and their difference to modern equipment used nationally.
“They basically do the same things,” Shoemaker said. “Crush rock, grade and separate the ore, refine the gold. But today, they do more, faster. Back then, at full blast, the 80 stamp mills at Empire Mine could crush 800 tons per day. With modern equipment, one machine can crush 50,000 tons per day — more efficiently and with far less noise and danger than in the old days.”
Most of Nevada County’s mines were closed down by 1960, around the time the museum got its start when the Historical Society was gifted with the extensive mining collection of Arthur Dowdell, former assayer of the Empire Mine, and with the 30-foot Pelton Wheel and an acre of land, rescued and donated by Phoebe Cartwright.
First museum director Glenn Jones led the charge to rebuild the Powerhouse and create the exhibits. Today, the dedication of people like Shoemaker and the museum volunteers keeps it operating, such as Rolf Laessig who spent more than 500 man hours to refurbish a dynamite-packing machine with more than 2,000 moving parts.
Laessig is just one of more than a dozen other volunteers who maintain the collection and explain it all to the public.
“I’ve never had a bad day here,” Shoemaker said.
Cherie Oliver, The Nevada County Historical Society’s director of public relations, contributed to this report. To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.
“Everything we use comes from the earth – you must either grow it or mine it.”
— ROBERT Shoemaker